Published by Scribe
Clarissa Goenawan is an Indonesian-born, Singaporean author who has so far penned two novels, both set in Tokyo and both reminiscent of supernatural romance and drama manga, as well as the novels of Haruki Murakami.
The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida is a subtly fantastical story, driven by themes of love, loss, and grief. It toes the line between YA and literary fiction, and it does so effortlessly.
The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida
Set during the shift from 80s to 90s Tokyo, as Japan’s great economic bubble is getting ready to burst, The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida traces the lives of a handful of lovable but flawed young women and men.
The titular Miwako Sumida is the axel around which this wheel of complex characters spins, each one taking a turn to narrate the story and impress upon us the kind of person Miwako Sumida was.
Sumida herself is dead. While working at a mountain retreat, she took a ladder into the forest and hanged herself from a large tree. Our three protagonists – Ryusei, Chie, and Fumi – are left to pick up the pieces of their own lives, recently shattered by the death of their friend.
Miwako Sumida was a student at Waseda University. Self-assured, thick-skinned, and consciously distant from other people, she only had one true friend: Chie. Less than a year before her death, however, Miwako met Ryusei, a lovestruck young man who becomes a dear friend to Miwako, while remaining hopeful for more.
Ryusei’s older sister, Fumi, is the owner of an art studio; she takes Miwako under her wing for a time before Miwako eventually leaves Tokyo behind.
Split into three parts, The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida is a three-dimensional story that moves seamlessly from the distant past to the recent past to the present, painting a colourful image of Miwako Sumida that grows in detail as the story gains momentum.
Despite not having been written by a Japanese novelist, The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida strongly and elegantly echoes (as I’ve already mentioned) the style and tone of manga like Erased and Orange, and most vividly the novels of Haruki Murakami.
Goenawan here stitches just a few supernatural threads into the fabric of her novel; threads which don’t show until the final third of the novel.
It’s this supernatural tinge, blended with the book’s settings — both time and place — and its emphasis on messy love and intense grief, which so delightfully calls to mind that distinct Murakami style.
The remote mountaintop village and its surrounding forest; the young hopeless romantic protagonist; the damaged but confident young woman; those ghostly, supernatural threads; the importance placed on a cat and its disappearance — Goenawan is having a lot of fun playing Murakami bingo with her story and characters and, reader, I am here for it.
It’s clear that Goenawan has a deep affection for Tokyo life, and for Japanese art and literature. But this is also far from a derivative novel.
The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida stands tall and strong all on its own. Goenawan cements her own style here, most notably through her clever use of perspective.
Goenawan’s protagonists are each at the centre of their own story. In their parts, they command the story; they guide the reader’s eye. Their story is about them, and we begin to root for them.
The best example is Ryusei, a young man suffering from unrequited love. We can’t help but want to root for him.
Yet, knowing from the first page that Sumida is dead, we know that rooting for him is a waste of energy and investment. Instead, we hope for him to work through his loss and his grief.
We also come to realise that, despite being gone, Sumida is the star of our story. She doesn’t narrate it, but it’s all about her.
At a certain point, we come to see that it’s foolish to so blindly hope for Ryusei to get what he so craves; so often in romance stories we forget that both parties have agency. We get so wrapped up in one side that we overlook the other. But Miwako Sumida will not be overlooked.
In this quietly feminist sense, this almost reads as a rebellion against the Murakami industry. The author whom The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida most reflects is, famously, far from good at writing women characters.
This novel feels like Goenawan’s attempt to fix that issue. She has created a Murakami-inspired novel that does away with all of his problems and tells a story far more rounded, pleasing, and sophisticated.
It doesn’t stop here, either. In The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida, Goenawan has attempted to write a layered and prominent trans character. One whose transness isn’t their defining characteristic, and whose own story doesn’t end in tragedy.
I’m not in a position to say whether or not Goenawan’s trans representation is flawless; in fact, it’s very possible that trans women and men might read this novel and take issue with its depiction of a trans woman.
It’s also possible that they won’t. Speaking only as a non-binary reader, I enjoyed the inclusion of a trans character. More importantly, I loved the trans character’s story more than that of any other character in the novel.
In fewer than 300 pages, Clarissa Goenawan gives so much love, attention, and dimension to a handful of flawed and lovable young characters.
We are offered so much crisp and fluid dialogue; so many detailed and eye-opening flashbacks and childhood stories. There are intense twists and turns, some you may see coming and some you won’t.
The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida is an exciting read while also being a chill and smooth one. It is rocked by death and grief and regret.
There are mysteries that tease at you and lies you’ll be told, all in service of a complex, intense story that ebbs and flows so beautifully. It’s a wild ride, and a delightfully satisfying one.